We’re at war with our mental health and it’s ‘incredibly ...

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We’re at war with our mental health and it’s ‘incredibly dangerous’

Psychologists are concerned about a rise in suicide attempts as people grapple with uncertainty

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Mental health professionals are increasingly concerned about how the lockdown extension is affecting South Africans.
stress and strain Mental health professionals are increasingly concerned about how the lockdown extension is affecting South Africans.
Image: Cathy Yeulet/123RF

“Living in a constant state of uncertainty can be the same as living in a war zone.”

This is according to clinical psychologist Zamo Mbele, describing the potential emotional impact on South Africans as they grapple with a lockdown extension that has left many families struggling to make ends meet.

“The length of this distress and the future uncertainty mean that even people without a previously diagnosed psychological or psychiatric condition will begin to experience isolation and depression, uncertainty and anxiety, paranoia and a lack of control. We therefore need to put more resources into responding to this, because it will impact us all,” said Mbele. 

Experts said the pandemic had brought with it a constant state of uncertainty. Mbele equated this to being in a war zone, because security was fundamentally important to humans and, essentially, they could not live without it.

“It doesn’t only erode a person’s sense of safety in and about the world; it can also erode a sense of self when you’re always scanning the environment and never feeling safe.”

Clinical psychologist Dessy Tzoneva said uncertainty was the hardest things for people to deal with.

“The uncertainty of it is something that will affect everyone, but the consequences will look different for different people, especially the financial consequences as a result of job losses, retrenchments, salary cuts or people having to take loans,” Tzoneva said.

The uncertainty of it is something that will affect everyone, but the consequences will look different for different people.
Dessy Tzoneva

With many companies having announced salary cuts and possible retrenchments, job security is a concern for many South Africans. Business For South Africa (B4SA) estimated that the economy could contract by 10% and more than a million people could be left unemployed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Clinical psychologist Colinda Linde said while economic support systems were being established, there was widespread uncertainty, fear and hopelessness in many South African homes.  

“The pandemic is potentially life-threatening, but having reduced or no income, with a high cost of living, is a more definite and immediate threat. Uncertainty is a huge trigger for stress and anxiety. The uncertainty is widespread, touching all sectors. Therefore the collective fear, helplessness and growing frustration is likely to be widespread. Economic support needs to be made accessible and widespread to counter the sentiment that there is no hope,” Linde said.

Last week, the SA Reserve Bank (SARB) announced a one-percent repo rate cut, the second in less than a month and the third this year. SARB governor Lesetja Kganyago said the decision to extend the national lockdown would have a severe impact on small businesses.

Economist Ndumiso Hadebe said consumers could use this opportunity to service debt and purchase assets in financial markets if they had disposable income. But he warned that the average household, with a median wage of R3,300 that supports about 3.5 people, would likely not survive the pandemic without state intervention.  

“The initial financial impact of the pandemic will be felt at the level of the household and its ability to buy groceries. If they are seasonal workers, there will be an additional loss of seasonal income due to the lockdown. Before the lockdown and the impact of the pandemic on the South African economy, retail sales data registered declining growth for durable goods. This serves as an indicator of the lack of consumer confidence to make purchases that would result in large debt they potentially cannot service,” Hadebe said.

These types of financial concerns could have severe mental health implications.

Dr Leverne Mountany and Mbele raised concerns about the growing number of suicide attempts as a result of heightened insecurity.  

“A lot of people will be experiencing this now and into the future, which could lead to a number of suicides — the insecurity about livelihood and life. People in a number of different sectors are insecure about what they will eat for dinner and this will go on for a long time. I think that level of insecurity is going to be incredibly dangerous,” Mbele said.  

People are insecure about what they will eat for dinner. This will go on for a long time. I think that level of insecurity is going to be incredibly dangerous.
Zamo Mbele

“The uncertainty does not decrease — of whether you will get sick or not, how you will experience it if you do and whether you will still have a job, even if you have one now. Anxiety rises with uncertainty. This needs to be managed with clear communication and practical measures — safe spaces in which to talk things through or express fears,” Linde said.

For Mbele, the pandemic has brought a sense of the new, which could be dark and sad, but, based on history, it was often in times of deep crisis that prosperity followed, he said.

“The real conundrum of this crisis is that usually in times of distress or war we’d want to be close to our loved ones, sitting together and being comforted physically. Isolation requires us to do the opposite. We are asking our brains and our hearts to do something that is very different to the way in which they would intuitively respond,” Mbele said.

SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) call centre 24-hour helpline: 0800-456-789 SMS 31393. For a suicidal emergency contact 0800 567 567.

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